Already, But Not Yet
As of yesterday, we are now in the part of the Church calendar known as Advent. During this season, Christians who observe the tradition mark and remember the coming of Christ. It takes its cue from the season of Israel's waiting, the life of Jesus Christ, and His promised future return.
If you celebrate Advent in your church, you may mark it by the lighting of candles on each of the four Sundays of the season. Together with these small acts, some churches also have themes associated with each day.
Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent, and different traditions may have marked it a different ways. Some might point to the ancient prophecies of the Messiah that looked forward to their fulfillment in Christ. Others might look forward Christ's Second Coming. Some may bind these two together or simply say that the first Sunday of Advent is one of hope.
Hope is, of course, what we look forward to. In it we can inhabit the yearning of "captive Israel" who looked for their Emmanuel (God with us). The song comes to mind. And, as I mentioned, hope can also motivate us here as we look towards the one who will one day "make all things new (Revelation 21:5).
Looking to this final end as we find ourselves situated in the here and now is what necessitates hope. And this hope is no small thing, no mere wishful thinking. It is a firm trust in what God will do. In the case of the Second Coming, it is a trust in the things already begun and underway.
The idea the the ultimate work of God in Christ has already begun on Earth even as it awaits its fulfillment has led to a theological refrain: the already and the not yet. The work of Jesus has been inaugurated on Earth. The plan of the Father is moving forward in the body of Christ (i.e. the Church) and by the power of the Spirit. Lives are changed. Love is alive. Transformation is at hand. These things are already at work.
But, of course, these things are not finalized. They haven't reached their full potential. And the works of evil and our broken world continue to wound, destroy, and confuse. This is the unfortunate reality of the not yet part. It is the portion which we trust God for in hope. It binds us in the reality of what will come to pass even as we never forget what is. It calls us to embrace the work God has for us and through us here and now.
This theme of the already and not yet has had a particular resonance with me these past few weeks, providing a metaphor which we all in some part share. It has to do, as with so many things in this cruel year, with the pandemic. The virus and its effects have devastated us the world over. It has killed, wounded, and destroyed. It has brought with it a fear of things we once took for granted. And it has recalled for us the reality of death that is ever only a step away. This is the "not yet" portion. This is world we live in.
But here, now, in the waning hours of November 2020, we know that the virus' days may be numbered. Effective vaccines have already been invented. The answer is here. Final approvals are being awaited and after that it is just a matter of distribution and lining up to get our shot. We can rejoice that the solution is at hand. This is the "already" position. This is also the world we live in.
While every metaphor falls apart at some point, I like the image of a vaccine during a time of pandemic as illustrative of the Christian hope. For while on the one hand we can celebrate and trust the ultimate solution is on the way, this does not excuse us from paying attention to what is right in front of us. It does mean we stop being vigilant or working in the here and now. The fact that Christ will return does not mean he does not have gospel work for us to do today.
A vaccine having been invented does not permit us to stop being cautious, giving up masks or social distancing. Because the "not yet" of the virus still surrounds us like a coiled snake ready to strike.
So too does the reality of evil and brokenness in our shared world. In response to such a state of affairs we Christ followers press on, pointing towards the hope to which we look forward even as we labor in the power of the Spirit to make some of that hope a reality even now.
May God see us through this season of hopeful and cautious waiting in the midst of the pandemic even as God's work of ultimate redemption, begun already in this world of darkness, looks ahead to its ultimate fulfillment.